Last week, we published a blog post by Cort McMurray, "Apologia Pro Urbe Sua," in which McMurray provided a humorous riposte to Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully's scathing denunciations of Houston. In his book American Architecture, Scully (the architecture critic, not the baseball announcer) rages that “there is nothing there – nothing that can be called a city as we ever knew a city to be.” That comment, and McMurray's rebuttal, kicked off a lively discussion of urbanism in the comments box between Houstonia arts editor Michael Hardy and Allyn West, the assistant director of communications at the Rice Design Alliance (where he edits and writes for the OffCite blog) and the former editor of Swamplot. Allyn and Michael decided to continue the debate over e-mail this week and publish the final version online so that others could join in. We welcome your thoughts in the comments section. 

In case you're wondering, Allyn lives in the East End, and Michael lives in the Heights.  

Allyn:

Criticism doesn't expire, of course, but Scully wrote this in the late '80s, when Houston was a much different place. Unlike New York City, Houston will be a much different place again in 30 years. New York City will continue to be good at what it has always been good at. It is thrilling (for me) to live in Houston because no one has any idea what the city will turn into. It could become a city where you want to stay, with a high quality of life and a variety of cultures, but it could go the other way just as easily, turning into a polluted post-oil traffic jam blockaded by piles of smoldering riprap. Houston is easy to love, and it is easy to criticize.

Michael:

Much has changed since the '80s, but the skyline's still fundamentally the same, right? All the major skyscrapers went up in the '70s and '80s.

Allyn:

Sure, the downtown skyline is much the same, excepting the few new residential towers (One Park Place, plus the new SkyHouse on Main Street, plus the Jackson & Ryan and Hines buildings going up around Market Square), but the skylines in Uptown, and the Medical Center, and the Energy Corridor, and even Montrose, aren't. I agree that these new buildings aren't always the most inspiring works of architecture, and I sympathize with McMurray's main complaint. It's just that I'm not clear why we're dredging up a discussion that was spurious to begin with in the '80s and doesn't really apply anymore to the city that we're living in now. Houston never was New York. Why are we giving that comparison attention?

Michael:

Just to clarify, I was the one who wrote the subhead (“Houston isn’t New York and never will be. Deal with it.”), not Cort. And I actually think the Houston downtown could well have been Manhattan-like were it not for the disastrous decision to build the semi-private tunnel system, which sucks all the life off the streets during the day and is abandoned after-hours. Pre-tunnel photos show a bustling, exciting, walkable urban environment. Not to mention the pernicious effects of suburbanization, facilitated by investment in highways rather than mass transit. In general, I think it's a mistake to see Houston's current shape as pre-ordained. Rather, it was the result of specific decisions taken by specific people at specific times.

Allyn:

I guess I'm cranky, too, at the arguments that Houston should be something other than what it is. Especially that it should be New York City.

Michael:

Houston is what it is—no one's disputing that. From my perspective, the question is where we go from here—towards greater suburbanization or greater urbanism. To me, saying that Houston is Houston is a way of short-circuiting that argument, of forestalling the debate by not having to defend further suburbanization. After all, if the process is automatic and inevitable, we can just sit back and watch.

Allyn:

Well, I agree that trotting out something akin to "Houston: It Is What It Is" sidesteps the discussion, and that's not what I mean to do. But I do mean to insist that we first ask the overwhelming question: What is it? Once we do that, and once we have an adequate answer, we can begin addressing what about it is urban, or suburban, or both, or neither. In short: I am "for" suburbs, as much as I am “for” reality TV, as neither is going anywhere. There are too many people who want that life, and a lot of those people drive parts of Houston I wouldn't want to get rid of. We can't all be slinging cocktails at Anvil. Someone has to be a chemical engineer at ExxonMobil.

I am “for” congestion, too. Driving is a pain in the ass, but it's still so easy and so convenient here that it nullifies for most of us most other available means of transit. If I were able, I would ride Metro everywhere, but as the system is now, I don't have that kind of time. Until our freeways and surface roads are so congested that they become a major, collective, citywide pain in the ass, I fear our traffic engineers and elected officials will keep reaching for that first-to-hand solution: more freeways, more roads, more lanes. Because I am for real public transit in Houston, I am for (for now) more congestion. Oh, and the suburbs help!

At the same time, we have to accept what the suburbs are, and we have to accept what our urban areas are, and aren't. You can't want a walkable neighborhood and an SUV and a huge backyard and abundant parking and a gate and no noise and safety and no light pollution and all the trimmings. Why can't you? Well, that's a question that often makes cool things happen here. But it's the same question that leads to irreconcilable differences at the level of the street. Houston might resist consensus, in other words. Which is its strength (at times) and a major source of frustration. Look at the plans for light rail in Afton Oaks and Uptown. We can't decide if we are urban or suburban, even inside the Loop. Admitting we have a problem is the first step.

Michael:

"Until our freeways and surface roads are so congested that they become a major, collective, citywide pain in the ass..." I’m afraid you're about three decades late on that one.

Allyn:

Sure, but the responses to that have been temporary fixes, not long-term solutions: more lanes on I-10 and yet another ring road. That's induced demand. Traffic fills the size of its container. And these are signs that the city continues to resist urbanization. Why do our commuters put up with it? Why have they, for so long, wasted so much of their personal lives sitting in a car? Have they not seen Mad Men and wanted to mimic that train ride into work? (Only half-kidding.) If I sat around and did nothing but bicker with ESPN Radio’s Colin Cowherd and A.J. Hoffman for 45 minutes twice a day, my boss would consider it a colossal misuse of company time. I blame TxDOT. Still, I voluntarily—or involuntarily, really—give up that time every day.

Michael:

I’m also continually puzzled by Houstonians’ apparent willingness to put up with hour-long commutes and apocalyptic traffic just to get to their little slice of suburban heaven. Yes, housing is cheaper the farther out you get—in Houston, as the saying goes, you drive until you can buy—but is it really worth it? Why not sacrifice that extra bedroom to lop off half an hour or more on your commute, especially given that being stuck in traffic is pretty terrible for your health. It’s not like Houston is New York, where urbanites have to give up on a yard and other domestic comforts—there are plenty of close-in neighborhoods like the Heights or the Museum District that offer modest, single-family homes with bucolic lawns. Are those neighborhoods expensive? Absolutely. But if you can afford a McMansion in Sugar Land or Katy, you can certainly afford a Woodland Heights bungalow, especially given all the money you’ll save on gas. 

Allyn:

“Is it really worth it?” The number of Houstonians living beyond 610 and the Beltway has to suggest that the answer is, at least for them, yes. It’s worth it, because the schools are better, or because the schools are newer, or because the homes out there have granite countertops and tile backsplashes and are “move-in ready,” or because they like riding their lawn tractor, or because they have a fetish for gates, or because they need storage space for their pleasure boat, or whatever. Anti-suburban attitudes are facile, I think, but I don’t envy anyone’s commute in from Katy or Sugar Land, whether he’s got an Audi and War and Peace on audiobook or not. I don’t get it. I hate my commute, and it’s from one side of the Loop to the other.

Still, the results of Stephen Klineberg’s and the Kinder Institute’s recent surveys suggest that that answer might be changing, that it might be less worth it, now, and that more and more Houstonians are saying that they want to live closer to where they work, want to live densely, want to have a smaller yard and access to shops and parks, aren’t leery of diversity. Then again, it was only 52 percent of respondents, compared with 47 percent who don’t. That’s still, like, 3 million people who don’t appear to want anything to do with what’s going on inside the Loop. And then you read Swamplot comments and you see these misconceptions about crime, homelessness, transit, termites, parking, flooding, and you can see why—even if you don’t agree with it—so many people still want to live farther out. How do you change those misconceptions? Do you change those misconceptions? Are they even misconceptions? And, if you do change them, what might that mean for those people living inside the Loop who make living inside the Loop worth it, the artists, the bartenders, the restaurateurs, the creative people, the weirdos? Property values would rise; lower- and moderate-income people, working- and middle-class people, would be priced out and displaced.

Michael:

Part of me certainly wants to say that if people prefer living in the exurbs, if that’s their American Dream, more power to them. And your point about inner-Loop affordability is well-taken—hell, if it would lower rents in the Heights, where I live, I might contribute a few nasty Swamplot comments of my own. The problem is when suburbanites and the politicians who represent them attempt to impose their anti-urban policies on everyone else, as Sugar Land's Tom Delay did for so many years by blocking federal funding of a Houston light rail system, and as John Culberson is doing now by blocking funding for the University Line, which would run through his district. As a result, Dallas has an 85-mile light rail system—the largest in the country!—while Houston, even when the East End and Southeast Lines are completed, will have only about a quarter of that. You mention the Kinder survey—one of the interesting findings is that 59 percent of people inside the Houston city limits support greater walkability, while in the unincorporated areas of Harris County the number drops to 42 percent. This raises all sorts of interesting questions about the balance of political power between urban and suburban areas. 

Of course, there’s also all the environmental degradation caused by unchecked sprawl, but Houston has never much bothered itself with the environment, and I doubt we’ll start caring anytime soon. 

Allyn:

Right. It reminds me of that line by Frank O’Hara: “If people don’t need poetry, bully for them.” If people don’t want interesting, diverse, transit-friendly, human-scaled neighborhoods where everything they need is accessible within a 5-minute walk, bully for them. Except the effects of anti-urban policies aren’t restricted to those who lobby for them; they affect us all. (Unlike the benefits of those policies, which don’t.) You might not mind driving home 45 minutes to The Woodlands, and you might want your hard-earned tax dollars to be spent making I-45 wider and smoother so that your drive is more pleasant, but the pollution that causes, the waste, the exhaustion and elimination of funds that results in that construction, isn’t just a problem for you and your loved ones; it affects us all.  

Maybe the problem, then, is relying on public funds and courting public will, when our “elected representatives” represent only some of us. Why not privatize public transit? Or pursue one of those public-private partnerships that are so in vogue? Metro says it can’t build an underpass on Harrisburg Boulevard for the East End Line, in part because it’s too expensive; what if a private company were recruited to help? You could sell naming rights! The TDECU Pollution-Free East End Line. Their slogan: “Don’t smell any benzene? You’re welcome.” Perfect. Likewise, a private company is working on a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston, and, at least as far as I’ve read, that might actually come to pass. Meanwhile, the Uptown Line that Culberson bragged about blocking the funding for remains a fantasy. I’ve often wondered why a struggling corporation like Ford doesn’t just give up — you’re never going to beat Honda or Toyota at this point! Let them make cars. You can make transit. Get into that market! Build us some F-15,000 buses. Build us trains, Elon Musk–style human transport vacuum tube technology, whatever. There is money to be made, Ford.

 

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